A reader writes:
We have three dogs, but our daughter wants a kitten for Christmas. How can we make this work?
Despite persistent folklore, cats and dogs are not enemies. They can get along quite well. They are, however, natural antagonists; their instincts will trigger inappropriate behavior in each other until they have learned to get along. Simply put, cats are small, fast moving creatures who prefer to flee when confronted, and dogs are designed to chase such.
A well socialized dog will regard the household cats as fellow members of the pack. Socialization is the process in humans, dogs, and cats which lets the mind recognize that we share the earth with fellow creatures with preferences and feelings, just as we have. We must make it quite clear, especially with a kitten, that these are objects to be seen but not touched.
It's much easier to let the dogs know a strict no-chasing policy is in effect, and then relax it when the kitten gets older, than to try to get the dogs to understand a little chasing is okay. They should not shoulder the responsibility of trying to figure out what a "little chasing" means. Leaving the cat strictly alone is easy for them to understand.
The ease of this operation depends on the personality of the dogs in question. When I was averaging ten cats in the house, I also had an average of two hundred pounds of Dog around, and they all learned to not only not bother the cats, but to form friendships with them. Of course, this was helped along by the fact that I was Pack Leader, and thus was also She Who Must Be Obeyed. My dogs were usually puppies who had grown up with cats, and learned manners early. A dog who has not encountered cats at such close range will need more guidance.
Paris, a spaniel mishmash we rescued from the streets of Queens, begging hot dogs from patrons of a lunch wagon, had no leadership qualities at all. When approached by the tiniest kitten he would simply roll over and invite dominance immediately, so they could get on with the business of being friends. He was never happier than when he had a little friend curled up against his stomach, and wouldn’t raise an eyebrow if a bunch of cats decided to commando raid the nip cabinet.
Roscoe, a Malamute/Collie mix, was the opposite, a natural security co-ordinator who would not rest until I agreed to let him evaluate every visitor at the door, made regular rounds at checkpoints, and would snitch on any cat misbehaving. The Christmas he was still a puppy we gave him a set of stuffed antlers to wear, but, unlike our other dogs, he regarded this as a demeaning request. We took them off and placed them on top of a little-used armoire. The cats had never had an interest in this armoire before, but mysteriously the antlers wound up on the floor, thoroughly chewed. We suspected, but could never prove, collusion between himself and certain cats.
As Pack Leader, our dogs look to us for clear messages about behavior. Give them some. On the first encounter, the dogs should be leashed and put into a Down Stay. Let the kitten out into the room, while the dogs remain under control. The penalty for constantly breaking the Down Stay should be having to leave the room and no longer getting to see the fascinating object. Dogs take exile very seriously.
Dogs shouldn't be punished for showing an interest. Gradually let them get to know the kitten, who will have their own ideas about the dogs. I suggested getting an outgoing, confident kitten, who is not only a better bet for a child, but has a strong sense of themselves that will let them better handle a dog's overtures, so unlike either a cat's or a human's.
Under no circumstances should the dogs be encouraged to chase the cat. They don't have the judgement or experience to evaluate the cat's reaction. In fact, all cats have to be ranked above all dogs in the hierarchy. This gives the cats a psychological advantage they will need against playmates who outweigh them so greatly.
A misconception many dogs owners have, that prevents them from being successful dog owners, is that dogs mind where they are in the hierarchy. It's true that some dogs have a nature that drives them towards leadership. But giving it to them is no favor. In our society, a pack leader must also be able to drive a car to the grocery store to bring back food, pay the vet for medical care, and know who is the mail carrier and when they can deliver things. No dog is up to that.
If we have a dog with a strong leadership drive, and no other dogs for them to supervise, we should come up with jobs for them to do. That is what a good leader does. Let your leader know he or she is welcome to rat out the cat for bad behavior, but discipline is Pack Leader's job. When they sit quietly to let the cat investigate them, praise them extravagantly for their restraint. Make it clear during cute moments that it's the cat who is funny, not them. Make the happiness of the cat their responsibility, and we will have directed their nature towards usefulness.
In this way, we can have even the most strong minded dog enlisted on our side, treating the cat with the restraint and decorum that will allow them to have a new friend. This also gives us a base to return to when they do begin to extend the friendship. As they interact more, things won't get out of hand, because we should always be able to say, "Leave the cat alone!" And they will.
As highly social creatures, dogs will enjoy having more creatures to be social with. They both need and want us to guide them in this new experience. They want to be useful members of the family; that's what dogs do. Showing them how is our Pack Leader responsibility.
With proper support, we won't have to worry about the cat, who will quickly figure out the dogs. That is what cats do.
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